David Nightingale: Physician-Writers

Jan 13, 2019

One could start with 11th century Avicenna, but in this brief essay about medical doctors who became writers, let’s first look at Michael Crichton.

Crichton was the prolific author of many books, such as The Andromeda Strain (which was one of 3 novels he published in a single year, 1969, when he was 27); he was also the author of Jurassic Park, published in 1990. Educated at Harvard, where he obtained MD degree, his books were not all novels, as for example his 1983 book about computers, called Electronic Life [ref.1] or his biography of the artist Jasper Johns. His earlier novels, written while at Harvard, were under a pen-name. He was also the creator of the TV series, E-R, which ran from 1994–2009. It is said that he would often rise at 3 a.m. to write.

Born in Chicago in 1942, and raised on Long Island, he was contributing articles to the NYT even in his teens. It is often claimed that women prefer tall men; five women chose to marry the 6’9” Crichton. He had 2 children, his second child being born just after his death from lymphoma in 2008.

An earlier also very prolific doctor/novelist was Somerset Maugham, born in Paris to English parents in 1874. After a miserable boyhood at the The Kings School, Canterbury, he obtained his MD degree from London University. At 23 the novel that allowed him to discontinue with medicine, Liza of Lambeth (based upon his experiences as an intern) was published and well-received. This was followed by well-known novels such as The Moon and Sixpence, plus many plays. It was his habit to write every morning, and at one time (the year 1908) he had 4 plays being produced in London simultaneously. With play-writing, essays, short stories and novels, he quickly became wealthy.

Unlike Michael Crichton he was a short man, who, despite a marriage, preferred men. That was a lifestyle disapproved of in those years and so he lived much of his life in France, Switzerland, and the  beautiful Italian island of Capri. While he did not write an autobiography per se, the 750pp novel Of Human Bondage is essentially just that [ref.2]. He went on writing into his late 80s, and – according to the biographer Beverley Nichols [ref.3] – died a rich and cantankerous old man, just before reaching 92.

Another doctor/writer was William Carlos Williams, who practised medicine in NJ all his life, winning awards for his poetry. His 1962 “Pictures from Brueghel & Other Poems” won him a Pulitzer Prize, and he won the US National Book Award for Poetry, as well as the Gold Medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He died in 1963.

100 years ago Scotland was producing many scientists and artists.  A.J. Cronin was born in Scotland in 1896 and won a Carnegie scholarship to Glasgow University, where he obtained his medical degree. He practised medicine until he was about 34, and then, on account of a duodenal ulcer, was ordered to rest, writing his first novel, The Hatter’s Castle in the space of 3 months. It was immediately accepted for publication and quickly became a best seller, allowing him to give up medicine. He is best-known for The Citadel, his novel about a young doctor in a poor Welsh mining village. Many of his books were turned into movies, with such actors as Gregory Peck, Deborah Kerr, and Dirk Bogarde. He was a full-time writer between 1930 and the 1970s, and lived in California, Switzerland and Scotland, dying in 1981.

Finally, at the start I mentioned the self-taught physician Avicenna of 1,000 years ago, but because of time, perhaps his life might be looked at later.

References:

1.  “Electronic Life; How to Think About Computers”, by Michael Crichton; A.A.Knopf, Inc.(1983).

2.  “W.Somerset Maugham”, by Forrest D.Burt; Twayne Publishers, a division of G.K.Hall & Co, 70, Lincoln St., Boston, MA 02111 (1985).

3.  “A Case of Human Bondage”, by Beverley Nichols; Secker & Warburg Ltd, 14 Carlisle St., London W1 (1966.)

David Nightinglale is an emeritus professor of physics at SUNY New Paltz where he taught for 31 years. His first novel, The Centauri Settlement, is produced by TheBookPatch.com .

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